Father James F. Keenan, SJ

A silver lining?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Many people were disappointed when, as the U.S. bishops began their meeting in Baltimore Nov. 12, it was announced that the Vatican instructed them to delay their votes on their response to the abuse crisis until a February meeting of the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences.

Most U.S. Catholics were expecting new structures of accountability and transparency to be voted on at the Baltimore gathering. Thus, the Vatican interruption was startling, but might it actually have been helpful? Can we find a silver lining here?

Four items strike me as important for us to better understand the events of last week.

First, the more we understand the context of the bishops’ proposals, the more questionable their readiness seems to have been. Questions were raised about how strong the proposed structures would be, whether there was sufficient specificity in them and whether difficulties between the proposals and canon law were resolvable at the meeting.

Furthermore, the draft texts were only sent to Rome at the end of October, and to the full conference at the beginning of this month.

Second, Pope Francis is calling to Rome the presidents of every bishops’ conference in the world for a meeting to address the crisis Feb. 21-24. This is extraordinary in that the pope is convening the entire episcopacy to accountability over the scandal. No longer is it seen as “an American problem,” as many have suggested.

Recent  reports from Chile, Germany and India highlight how tragically universal the crisis really is. So if the U.S. bishops passed a problematic proposal or, worse, didn’t pass anything because of internal divisions, it would have set a terrible precedent for the February meeting.  

Third, at the pope’s suggestion, the U.S. bishops have scheduled a retreat from Jan. 2-8 at Mundelein Seminary. While some say the bishops need to act more than pray, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not always shown a great deal of collegiality and solidarity with one another or even the pope.

For instance, the conference has yet to put the pope’s apostolic exhortation on family life, “Amoris Laetitia,” on its agenda. Other episcopal conferences, from Germany and Austria to South Africa and Argentina, have not only welcomed and discussed it, but developed interesting programs to help families with their marriages, particularly those who have divorced. The retreat might lead to greater unity among the body of bishops, which may bring stronger responses to the current crisis.

Fourth, there is much riding on the meeting in February, but there is much reason for hope. Last week Pope Francis made an extraordinarily promising appointment. Archbishop Charles Scicluna might not be a household name, but for those following Rome’s response to the abuse crisis, the Maltese archbishop and canon lawyer is very well-regarded. As America magazine reports, Archbishop Scicluna’s work helped to remove more than 3,000 priests from ministry from 2002 on, after the 2002 wave of scandals broke.

In 2005, he significantly intervened in the removal of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the disgraced founder of the Legionnaires of Christ. In 2014, Archbishop Scicluna was instrumental in closing the case on Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, who was accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with four men, three of whom were serving priests. 

More recently, Pope Francis, during his visit to Chile, was confronted with accusations against some Chilean bishops. At first, he effectively sided with those bishops. When the outcry continued to grow, the pope sent Archbishop Scicluna to meet with and listen to those who said they had been abused.

Archbishop Scicluna’s quick yet extensive investigation led Pope Francis to send a letter of apology to the church of Chile, an invitation to the victims to meet with him in the Vatican and to summon all the Chilean bishops to Rome for a meeting. He would accept nine of their resignations.

Last Tuesday, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Scicluna to the second-highest position in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, making him effectively the senior Vatican official to handle all matters pertaining to sexual abuse. Clearly the pope is making the February meeting a matter of great importance for the entire church, not just our own.



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